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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dave Brubeck and Sons on Fathers Day - Ravinia Festival, Highland Park IL

It is a great thing to have great friends. My old buddy, John Raitt, couldn't use his Ravinia tickets last Sunday (Father's Day evening) so he tossed them over to me. My dear wife and I saw one of the most amazing and poignant jazz concerts in history - Dave Brubeck and his 4 sons - Darious, Chris, Dan and Matt, performing together in the wonderful outdoor setting. Dave turned 90 years old in December of last year, and while he seemed to be fighting jet lag, his playing was beyond belief. Dave has a unique piano "voice," instantly recognizable to a semi-serious jazz fan like me. I put him in a small group of players that have established a voice - Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock are part of that fraternity.

I am astonished that this man has not lost any of his artistry to age. He started playing the Ravinia Festival in 1955; he has graced the stage at least a dozen times. Brubeck's story is well-known; the idyllic California boyhood in the East Bay Area and on a ranch, the switch from veterinary medicine to music in college,the WWII service in Patton's army, the studies with Darius Milhaud, the French classical composer. I can remember some folks sneering at Brubeck's music - accusing him of cultural appropriation, intellectualization of the jazz idiom and so forth. To this I say, "Horseshit." You can like his music or hate it, but you can't deny his impact. The man has created some of the "greatest hits" of jazz - "Blue Rondo a' la Turk," "Take Five," "In Her Own Sweet Way," " Unsquare Dance" and several others. He brought odd meters to the attention of the American public. His record, "Time Out," went platinum in 1959, giving Elvis and Buddy Holly a run for their money. A lesser known fact - he was a quiet but determined advocate for racial justice. He integrated his quartet in 1958 when bassist Eugene Wright became a member; Brubeck cancelled dates at clubs that objected to integrated bands,. He cancelled television appearances when the station management wanted to keep Wright off-camera. These are the types of actions that helped to break down the evil system that dominated the United States for much of the 20th Century.

At Ravinia, Brubeck did his hits - but he also pulled out a couple of surprises. "St. Louis Blues" sounded fresh in the hands of the Brubeck clan. "Someday My Prince Will Come" became a poly-rhythmic, counter-punctual, dense and exciting collection of multiple melodies, odd meters and chord voicings - pretty radical, in fact. "Black and Blue" featured Chris Brubeck's bass trombone - the cat has serious chops - with Matt on cello taking the bass line since Chris put down his bass to pick up the 'bone. "Take Five" was very interesting - the melody was carried by Matt's cello. Now Matt can really play; it is clear that he is a serious classical player. His jazz work is formidable. I haven't heard the cello in a jazz quartet context, so the sound was odd, but not unpleasant.

As the evening progressed, the Dave seemed to tire somewhat. He let Darius play the aggressive piano lead on "Blue Rondo a' la Turk." But when the nonagenerian settled in for a solo, the years fell away. He also was an effective and amusing story-teller between tunes. The encore was a brief and very touching version of Brahms' Lullaby, with chord voicings that made the little piece brand new and uplifting.

The four Brubeck brothers all met the challenge of their father's musicianship. Dave would occassionally stand up at the piano and gaze at his sons making music, and he would smile. They bowed at the end of the second set and left the stage with their arms draped over each others' shoulders. It felt like the folks at Ravinia had been invited to an intimate family celebration.

And as the patriarch and his sons ambled off stage, I found myself thinking about my own son, Ben. He is a successful educator now, living far from me. I miss him. I salute him.

I look forward to celebrating Dave Brubeck's 100th birthday

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